09 Oct 2012

Don Giovanni, LA Opera

In our era of minimal cultural restraints Don Giovanni has been the opera of choice for presenting dissolution on stage. Rape, oral sex, drug use and urination have been portrayed to Mozart's melodies.

How was the singing and conducting? It's hard to know. In such productions, the direction is the topic of interest.

Countering this trend, the Los Angeles Opera Company's second presentation of its season was a plain though not simple Don Giovanni. The production, borrowed from Lyric Opera of Chicago, was created for that company's 50th anniversary season in 2004, by the much-hailed German director Peter Stein with a view to adhering closely to Mozart's music and Da Ponte's words.

Although there's hardly an opera that doesn't — like Don Giovanni — have love, sex and death at its core, it is Da Ponte's unique libretto that has allowed this centuries old work to become a kind of touchstone of an era's cultural tastes. It's title — Il Dissoluto punito, ossia Don Giovanni — dramma giocosa — “The Profligate Punished or Don Giovanni — a playful drama” tells us that we will first see a a man's nasty behavior, then see him punished, and that we'll have a good time watching it all. And sure enough, when the curtain goes up we witness a scuffle after a probable rape, followed immediately by a murder. Subsequently we are exposed to two acts of the protagonist's unrelenting reprehensible conduct, with some laughs thrown in. At the very end we see him get his supernatural comeuppance, and are treated to a fairly merry fugue — a sort of victory song.

“I hate shows where the director is onstage,” Stein is quoted as saying. “I want to follow the intentions of the author as far as I can understand them.” And follow Mozart and Da Ponte he did. Rather than drag Don Giovanni into the 21st century, Stein's production takes its audience back to the time of the opera's creation, and allows us to see and hear what Mozart and Da Ponte were trying to tell us about the characters' words and hearts. Although Stein did not direct the Los Angeles production, director Gregory A. Fortner led the cast in a lively and well paced performance which illuminated the complex interactions between the characters.

The plain, and least attractive aspect of the production are the minimal, flat looking sets that featured occasional cutout doors and windows, and a tiny balcony that had me fearing for Donna Elvira's safety. None of it looked like it was taking place in Spain. Fortunately, the music making was bright enough to light the stage. As Don Giovanni, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo was a slim legged graceful, amoral seducer. His resounding bass-baritone, which reflected his enthusiasm for the role, faltered only once in a surprisingly listless “Fin ch' han dal vino.” Bass-baritone, David Bizic, making his American and Los Angeles debuts as Leporello, was a perfect partner. The two have played these roles opposite each other and it shows. Joshua Bloom, a young Australian bass, also was making his Los Angeles debut, was a properly bumptious Masetto. And Ievgen Orlov, yet another bass (it may surprise you to know that this dramma giocosa features four major bass baritone roles) had the requisite depth and darkness to cause chills in his last encounter with the Don. In the role of Don Ottavio, one of the more thankless in opera (two gorgeous arias, and mostly stand around) tenor Andrej Dunaev, another debutant with the company, demonstrated some lovely legato. The three female roles were equally well filled. Californian Juliana Di Giacomo, making her LA debut as Donna Anna, displayed the grim seriousness and easy coloratura necessary for the role. Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski's silken soprano and acting made her an almost lovable love stricken Donna Elvira. Mezzo Roxanna Constantinescu was appropriately pert and charming as Zerlina.

DnG4235.pngLeft to right: Soile Isokoski as Donna Elvira, David Bizic as Leporello, Roxana Constantinescu as Zerlina, Joshua Bloom as Masetto, Julianna Di Giacomo as Donna Anna, Andrej Dunaev as Don Ottavio. (Photo: Robert Millard)

For all the wonderful acting and singing, one of delights I have in seeing Mozart conducted by James Conlon, is watching him lead vocal ensembles when the soloists are stage forward. Conducting without a baton, it is a joy to follow as he weaves their voices into a gleaming musical fabric.

Quibble department? Only about some excessive humor, particularly a moment when Don Giovanni and Leporello exchange clothing and comically respond to the odors of each others' garments. It's a neat touch, but causes outright audience laughter that drowns out the first phrases of Donna Elvira's “Ah taci, ingiusto core.”

I attended the September 30th performance of Don Giovanni. Performances on October 10 and 14 will be led by Plácido Domingo, with Angela Meade and Micaëla Oeste, making their Los Angeles Opera debuts as Donna Anna and Zerlina, respectively.

Estelle Gilson


Leporello:David Bizic*; Donna Anna:Julianna Di Giacomo*/Angela Meade*; Don Giovanni: Ildebrando D'Arcangelo; Commendatore:Ievgen Orlov; Don Ottavio: Andrej Dunaev; Donna Elvira:Soile Isokoski; Zerlina:Roxana Constnatinescu/Micaëla Oeste*; Masetto:Joshua Bloom*

Conductor: James Conlon/Plácido Domingo
Original Production:Peter Stein*
Diector: Gregory A. Fortner
Set Designer: Ferdinand Wögerbauer*
Costume Designer: Moidele Bickel*
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Chorus Master: Grant Gershon

*Company debut